Connected Learning Teaching Writing

Authentic Conversations on Youth Voices

“Who does that?” a girl in my 10th grade English class murmured dismissively.

We were walking back to class from the garden across the street from our school, the East-West School of International Studies, Queens, NY. She was responding to my vague proposal that we take their essays about different plots in a local community garden and make audio recordings.

“We could put your recordings together as podcasts, then people could download our collection. Or,”  I said trying to preempt one of the objections that might have been behind the student’s rolling eyes, “we could download it for them.”

I waited for a positive response, thinking how interesting it would be be for the students to make and edit recordings of their garden essays using Audacity. And how wonderful it would it be for guests to walk around the garden across from our school while listening to the students’ essays.

“Whatever,” I pushed on, “once the recordings are on their iPods, people could take guided tours of the gardens.”

It’s this idea that received the student’s withering response. I’m glad I listened to her, eventually.

“We could link to the mp3’s inside of markers on a Google map of the gardens. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Ah, NO-OH!” the student persisted, trying to keep it real for me.

I listened this time, and instead of creating audio, we spent more time with revising the writing and with inserting an image from the garden on each “text and media” discussion post, created on Youth Voices, a web site where my students publish, distribute, and discuss their work with peers from across the country. Even more important, I gave the students time to compose comments under each others’ posts on this social network. We’ve learned that it takes time for authentic conversations to develop. (See Jackey’s post with comments.)

What’s Youth Voices All About?

Youth Voices is a school-based social network that was started in 2003 by a group of National Writing Project teachers. We merged several earlier blogging projects, preferring to bring our students together in one site that would live beyond any particular class, where it would be easier for individual students to connect with other students, comment on each others work, and create multimedia posts for each other. Further we thought it made sense for us to pool our knowledge about curriculum and digital literacies. If being part of such a community makes sense to you, we invite you to join us too. We work to embrace any teacher who is interested to have their students publish online and participate in the give and take of a social network like Youth Voices.

Youth Voices is much more than a website or a social network. It is also a welcoming community of teachers who have been planning curriculum together for many years. In addition to being active members in our local Writing Projects and the National Writing Project, many of us also count ourselves a member of the World Bridges community, and we meet regularly via Skype on a weekly webcast/podcast, Teachers Teaching Teachers, which has been going live every Wednesday evening at EdTechTalk since 2006.

All of this collaboration and talk, these years of building curriculum and working on the web together have led to to consider: What do the Youth Voices/Teachers Teaching Teachers teachers love about this work? And why do we think any kindergarten – college teacher might also find to love there too? What we think you and your students will find on Youth Voices, what we keeps us coming back, what we strive to engender, what we will never give up on (even in a school) is involving our students in “authentic conversation.”

Over the years the teachers who have been working together to grow Youth Voices have learned that as important as it is to have students publish multi-media, well-crafted products, it is at least as important to nurture, guide, and allow time for students to write comments and to develop conversations about each others discussion posts. Our mission at Youth Voices is to be a place online where students from across the nation (and globally, when possible) can engage other young people in conversations about real topics that they see happening in the world. We want our students to be immersed in lively, voiced give-and-take with their peers.

What is “Authentic Conversation?”

It’s probably time for a working definition of what we mean by “authentic conversation.”  Authentic conversations on Youth Voices grow out of these foundational principles:

  • an individual student should follow his/her passions and vital questions
  • a student should seek to become a member of a small community of like-minded explorers
  • a student needs to adopt the stance of a researcher, constantly finding other voices to include in his/her own writing.

These principles help us move students toward the kinds of “authentic conversation” that we can sponsor for them on Youth Voices. We hope that you and your students will join us there soon. Perhaps another example, beyond the suggestions in the introduction to this piece would help paint the picture of what these principles look like in the classroom.
Shantanu Saha, a teacher at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, Queens, NY (BSGE) describes a moment when he began to understand how Youth Voices might work “to drive forward a curriculum geared toward giving students the ability to reflect on topics of personal interest.”

One of my students, Carmen M, wrote her post about teens being sexually active. This became one of the most popular topics on the site (it still ranks in the top 10), and generated a lot of attention. From this I learned much about my student, who had sat most of the year in my class without saying much. Indeed, I had thought that she did not have much to say and was disinterested in school. I learned that through persistent, quiet encouragement, I could get students to come out of their shells and express themselves online.

It’s in Shantanu’s description of Carmen’s post, “Why are teens being sexually active if we are being educated about it more than those in the past?” where we can begin to define why this was a moment of authentic conversation on Youth Voices. Shantanu writes:

I admire the candor and emotion she expressed in her post. She had really found a voice, and it came through with enough force that it demanded that the students who responded do so in kind. The whole thread reads to me to be much like a conversation that kids would have normally out of the earshot of teachers and parents, dealing with weighty issues and discussing or resolving matters themselves.

This is why we have Youth Voices, to have students create such voiced discussion posts that their peers have no choice but to talk back in passionate and thoughtful ways. And when voices from research are included as well, isn’t this what we mean by academic writing? On Youth Voices our students are writing for real audiences and they are speaking with engaged voices. They are doing scholarly work with peers and experts within a particular branch of knowledge, and their conversations are enriched by sourced, linked, quotations from ongoing research. That’s what we mean by “authentic conversation.”

Another example comes from one of Madeline Brownstone’s students, also from BSGE. “There was a conversation about Dracula vs. Twilight,” Madeline writes:

My 10th grade classes were reading Dracula in English class, and many of the kids (girls especially) were consumed with the Twilight series of books (and especially the Twilight movies). I asked students that first day to write about a book they have read. Jaymee C. used the opportunity to make a “text-to-text connection” between the book she was obsessed about and the book she was forced to read in class. The implicit conflict between the two books embodied by the title of the post soon caught the attention of most of the class, and soon there was a merry online discussion raging over the relative merits of the two books.

This conversation wasn’t confined to one time or place. It took place online in the last weeks of school one June, got picked up in the fall, and continues to this day. Madeline noticed a pattern in the early posts:

Interestingly, the conversation seemed to divide among gender lines, with the girls in the school defending Twilight against the boys, who seemed by and large ready to extol Dracula over Twilight. The girls similarly seemed ready to put down Dracula and promote the merits of Twilight. While not the stuff of high-level lit-crit, it did get students to talk about the writing in the books themselves, which I had been laboring (and usually failing) to do in face-to-face discussion about books, in advisory.

Madeline also noticed a difference when students from outside of her school joined the conversation:

Very curiously, there were several posts that sought to balance the merits of the two books. All of these posts came from students outside of my school. Students from the other schools, coming into the conversation without established relationships with the opposing gender factions, were much more inclined to avoid taking a side on the issue.

Students on Youth Voices are relatively free to roam about, and to concern themselves mostly with topics that genuinely strike their interests, rather than simply satisfy a school requirement.  Because their posts concern things that the students find important, the writing reflects their passions, it contains deeper and wider reflection, and it can provoke more varied responses from many sources and viewpoints

How Does This Happen on Youth Voices?

It starts with generative questions that build into inquiries or research projects, which students then develop into discussion posts.Then a group of students comments on these posts, and we facilitate the creation of niche groups, students who seem interested in similar inquiries.

In the ongoing process of regularly posting and commenting, teachers guide students to use images, links, and other digital tools, and to do research into their questions. In succeeding posts and comments, the students quote and link to the voices they find in blogs, poems, podcasts, videos, news items, and magazine and journal articles. In the middle of this upward spiral of increasingly complex discussion posts, comments from a growing group of peers, and a more diverse research sources are the comments Youth Voices teachers ask their students to write.

“Authentic conversation” on Youth Voices means that students are involved in inquiry, research, guided response, and collaboration with their peers from any school on Youth Voices. The direction of most of this work is horizontal, peer-to-peer, with important monitoring, cajoling, editing, modeling, and motivating coming from the all the teachers involved on the site, not just the one a student sees every day (or twice a week, depending on a teacher’s schedule) in class.

Starting with Generative Questions

Our first step toward authentic conversation is to ask students to find a real question, to launch into a self-chosen inquiry, not teacher- or curriculum-driven inquiry. Youth Voices teachers ask students to wrestle with the question, “What are you passionate about?” Another way to pose this question is to ask students to come up with an inquiry that they could sustain for the whole semester or even year, if possible. “What’s a big idea or a social issue that you would like to explore?”

Right?! Ask a teenager questions like this and you often get a cynical response or one that’s a unthinking parroting of mass media or typical school assignments: abortion, capital punishment, animal cruelty. Still, we have found many ways in Youth Voices to sneak up on this big question, social issue, passionate inquiry.

Although we are always looking for new ways to keep our classes focused on self-initiated, self-interested, self-sustaining inquiries, one place that many us begin is with a list that we call “10 self / 10 world questions.” Here are a few of the first steps that we ask students to take toward passionate, personal inquiries that will involve them in authentic conversations with their peers.

  • Write 10 questions that you have about self and 10 questions that you have about the world.
  • In parenthesis, type at least 5 tags after each question. (“Tags” is another word for keywords.)
  • Next, pick one question and write about it as though you are the expert. Write about why it is of interest to you and all that you already know about it. Write about what you would like to know about it that you don’t already know.

We’ve borrowed James A. Beane’s beginning point for inquiry that he describes in his book, Curriculum Integration. We have learned from Beane and from Paulo Freire that we can trust a problem-posing approach.  

For the dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student, the program content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition — bits of information to be deposited in the students — but rather the organized, systematized “re-presentation” to individuals of the things [questions] about which they want to know more. (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 93)

The teachers who are using Youth Voices have found that when we allow students the freedom to explore their own questions, they find significant, generative themes that both reflect the big issues of our time and their personal passions. It’s in this place of personal, passionate inquiry into issues of significance that students develop the voices they need to engage in authentic conversations with their peers.

When we engage students by asking them to seek to find and explain their own passionate inquiries, they write about inquiries related to topics such as these: race, religion, sex, sexuality, child abuse, corporal punishment, death, boy on girl violence, video games, anime/magna, and more! These are the topics of the posts that have received the most response over the past couple of years, and these topics are usually only found on the margins of school. Youth Voices, on the other hand, is a place where we encourage students to write about and to do research on topics such as these, and to do it with passion, expecting equally committed responses.

Building a Niche

The second important step in moving students toward these authentic conversation is ask them, “How can you build an audience of peers who are also asking your question?” At its best Youth Voices is a place where a young person can find his or her particular niche and add his/her voice there. Over time many students who publish and write comments on Youth Voices become aware of a very specific audience for their writing: students who are probably not in their class, but have similar interests or questions. An individual student connects with and gets to know other students by reading his/her peers’ comments, and over time these co-posters on Youth Voices begin to whisper in that student’s ear when they begin to write.

The answers to this question of how you find your niche and how you maintain your position in that niche are important parts of the puzzle that leads to authentic conversation. Students find that they earn an audience by publishing regularly, by being provocative enough to engender response, by using multimedia, and by being a good responders themselves. We spend a lot of time teaching students how to respond to each other.

We scaffold their comments, using detailed templates that specify, for example, the exact language to use in the second and third paragraphs of a comment within which students are asked to include quotations from the post that they are commenting on.

One sentence you wrote that stands out for me is: “<Quote from message.>” I think this is <adjective> because… <add 1 or 2 sentences>

Another sentence that I <past tense verb> was: “<Quote from message>.” This stood out for me because…

Of course, we also encourage students “to break out of the overly-structured “sentence starters” and create your own kinds of response.” However, we do ask them to keep in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Speak directly to the student or teacher whose post you are responding to.
  2. Quote from the post or describe specific details (of an image or video).
  3. Relate the work to your own experiences or to another text, image, video, or audio that this one reminds you of.
  4. Be encouraging and generous with your remarks. End on a positive note.
    (See Guides.)

It’s also important to note that niche groups often need teacher support. Youth Voices teachers work together on the site to get students together. We e-mail colleagues across the country, saying: “Hey, I have a girl who will only write about her basketball team. Do you have anybody like that who would respond to her?” Or “Did you see those photographs we put up of places in our local neighborhood? How about some responses?” Posting and hoping for response is not enough. At Youth Voices we have leaned how important it is to pay as much attention to the process of response as it is the process of creation.

Ongoing, Passionate Digital Inquiry

Let’s say the upward spiral of student engagement in the give and take of Youth Voices has taken off. Now comes the third step that pushes students toward meaningful conversation. The teachers using Youth Voices have had a running joke with each other over these years of working together. When we get too serious, we remind each other that school is about friends! Students don’t come to school to do “authentic conversations” on school-based social networks, and they don’t come to do math or science either. Young people come to school to be with their friends. “It’s like a big cocktail party!” I’ve joked, “we just want to give them a couple of interesting things to talk about along the way.”

What this means on Youth Voices is that we value the connection and the conversation first. The flow has to be there, otherwise the students won’t be. But then? Then we get to have them find wonderful works of literature and poetry, surprising blog posts, deep, academic articles, videos, podcasts, and games that are about the generative themes that have come from the students’ questions. We want to give our students something significant to talk about on Youth Voices, and the students soon learn that there is a lot more to talk about once they’ve done their research. Bringing in other voices into your discussion post makes your own voice more powerful, more demanding of a response.

At every turn, we work to support and guide students in their process of doing research.  We use a variety of means, which we capture (whenever possible) in our Youth Voices Missions. These are pages that are open to selected students and all teacher on the site to contribute to, or to change. Our curriculum and our support structures for students to do research are also embedded in the Youth Voices Guides, about 50 of which are readily available from any page on the site.

In one of the Guides for Concocting Discussion Posts, for example, the fourth paragraph of the “Personal Inquiry” guide asks students to copy the following, filling in anything in <angle brackets>:

Being that I didn’t have a lot of background information on <your subject.>, I chose to do some research on the topic. As I searched for blogs and news articles on Google, I came across this one article: <Title and link to the article.> This article provided a lot of information and opinions on <your subject>. Some people felt that <your subject> were <summarize some facts from your article.> <Insert a quote from the article.> This <statement/statistic> didn’t really surprise me all that much, but it did make me feel <emotion>. <Write 2 or 3 more sentences, expaining why you feel the way you do.>

Most teachers, including most of us who now regularly use these guides with our students, at first wonder why we would use such fill-in-the-blank, structured guidelines with students. We have found that instead of acting as a constraint, the guides free students to be more expressive and to create more developed posts. Our work with these guides on Youth Voices is similar to the work that  Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein describe in their book, They Say / I Say (2005).  They argue that it makes sense to offer students “user-friendly templates to help writers make these key moves in their own writing.” We have also found this to be the case on Youth Voices.

Jake Uses a Guide to Find His Voice

Here’s an example of how a student, Jake, in Susan Ettenheim’s digital photography class at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, NY, NY was able to find his voice by using one of our guides, one that Susan had adapted from from the “Personal Inquiry” guide. Here are a couple of photographs and paragraphs from one of Jake’s posts:

Being that I didn’t have a lot of background information on Michael Kenna, I chose to do some more research. As I searched for another source of information about him, I came across Michael Kenna’s website.  This website provided a lot of information and opinions about Michael Kenna’s photographs and personal life.

I saw that he did a lot of commercial work for large corporations. This didn’t really surprise me all that much, but it did make me feel weird because I realized that I had seen his work in that aspect before as well.

Now that I have done this research, it makes me think more about my own work Double Sunset.  I think of this piece because I also used a man-made object to merge the natural and unnatural (the dock).

Next, with my own work, I hope to start taking sets of pictures that revolve around a single theme.  I would like to try taking some black and white photographs. I would like to try having the weather to revolve around my photographs, instead of my photographs revolving around the weather.


Susan identifies this post as the beginning of an inquiry using photography that Jake took in her class. 

I have had the pleasure of getting to know this student in art and now in digital photography. I admire his sense of humor and his deeply complex way of seeing the world. I admire that he seems to be able to express himself here because of the confines of the template. I admire that he was able to do the assignment, yet give it a twist [The template he was using did not ask him to add another picture of his own in these paragraphs.] which he does with everything in life—certainly in school.


Susan goes on to explain how the template worked in this case:

I can identify some of the wording from the “sentence starters” I have used, such as “One thing that surprised me is…” but what follows are often great insights, and more substance than if Jake didn’t have this frame for responding.


As mentioned earlier, authentic conversations on Youth Voices grow out of a few basic beliefs. First, we have learned to help students to develop multimedia projects that arise from their own passions and vital questions, but that’s not enough.  A second important part of our work together to to help students to form small communities where they can become members of a peer group and work collaboratively.  The natural third step is to ask students to adopt the stance of researchers, constantly finding other voices to include in their own writing, photography, audio, or video productions.

These principles help us move students toward the kinds of “authentic conversation” that we can sponsor for them on Youth Voices. As always, we would welcome you and your students will join us there soon.

Voices on the Gulf

In the Summer of 2010, many of us who have been building Youth Voices began to think about what we could do to support our colleagues and friends who live along the Gulf of Mexico as oil was spewing from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. We worked with Bill Fitzgerald to quickly launch a social network called Voices on the Gulf, and this site has become a sister site to Youth Voices, inspiring us to think about the future of groups on Youth Voices.

In August 2010, students and teachers along the Gulf Coast began publishing theirs stories, poems, photography, essays, audio, video, and more on a new site, Voices on the Gulf. These teachers, most of whom are members of their local sites of the National Writing Project, talked about wanting to capture important details before they got lost, of recognizing that their stories were primary sources at an important moment in our history, of wanting to measure the impact of the oil spill on their culture and in their personal lives. They explained how important it became for their students to tell their stories after the floods that followed Katrina and Rita, and how they wanted to take the initiative this time in publishing student work.

I was excited to bring this work to the students in my classes this fall. My students who don’t live on the Gulf Coast needed to be reminded that this crisis did not end when the Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped in mid-July. With Voices on the Gulf ringing in their ears, it has been easier for these students to empathize with the on-going psychological, economic, and ecological dimensions of this crisis.

Teachers and students who do not live on the Gulf Coast, but who want to find resources, keep up to date with current local and national news about the spill, and engage in discussions about the cultural and personal effects of this oil disaster were invited to join our Voices on the Gulf community. We plan to continue investigating previously over-looked issues that this disaster has spotlighted.

One example is Louisiana’s coastal wetlands which, as Bob Marshall reminded us this summer in the The Times-Picayue, “continue to turn into open water at the rate of 25 square miles per year, the result of levees built for navigation and flood protection, and tens of thousands of miles of canals dredged for the oil and gas industries.”

Throughout the summer of 2010 we talked with teachers from the Gulf Coast on Teachers Teaching Teachers, a weekly webcast that I do with my colleagues, Susan Ettenheim and Chris Sloan. These new friends on the Gulf Coast made it clear that they wanted more than a place to publish their students’ work. They wanted to be sure that their students received comments as well, comments from students like mine in New York City who might otherwise have moved on from the BP oil spill story.

Conversation was their goal, and this desire for interaction fit well with how a site like Voices on the Gulf can become an important tool for learning. As we described in more detail above, Susan Ettenheim, Chris Sloan and I have managed the school-based social network, Youth Voices since 2003, and we’ve learned to put commenting at the center of this work.

When we give students the time and the support they need to respond to each others work in detailed and respectful ways, they learn to value these interactions with their peers and are quickly motivated to begin producing new thoughtful discussion posts on a somewhat regular schedule. Each of these posts, in turn becomes a new node in an evolving web of self-sponsored, peer-inspired student inquiry. It’s been exciting to see these streams of authentic conversation develop over the past six years on Youth Voices and more recently on Voices on the Gulf.

New Networks for Authentic Conversation

It’s because of our experiences with Youth Voices that we could envision a network of exchange that would grow from the first poems, drawings, notes, reports, and songs that were published by teachers and students on Voices on the Gulf. Here’s what five of these voices sounded like in August 2010:

There’s “The Bad Oil,” by Haley, a first-grader from Louisiana:

When I see the pelicans in the paper

I feel sad.

When they say on the news that a lot of sea turtles are

coming up on the land dead,

it makes me really, really sad.

I just want to snap and it will be all over.

Josh, a kindergartner from Alabama, draws his new reality, “A Sea Life Picture with Tar Balls.” (right)

There’s a note from Stacey Ferguson, a fifth-grade teacher in Mississippi. Her students have been in temporary buildings ever since Katrina and Rita.

The first day of school was unbelievable! It was the first time my 5th graders EVER went to school in a real building. They were amazed and almost in tears. All of us teachers were in tears. It was a beautiful thing. We will have an amazing year. I’m excited about Voices on the Gulf. Thanks again for asking me to be a part of such a neat project.

Another teacher Kyle Meador, is working with high school students in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.  He reports on a trip he took with students “down to Houma, the town of Dulac more specifically.” He writes:

Together, we learned about environmental degradation of the wetlands and how that has a detrimental affect on the nearby communities, and the rest of Louisiana. We saw what a healthy bayou looks like (thriving and diverse ecosystem of healthy trees, birds, fish, insects, etc.) Then we drove only a few miles over and saw the unhealthy swamps, where the trees and plant life has washed away and where the delicate ecosystem can no longer live. We took a stop at LUMCON, the Louisiana University Marine Consortium, as well.

After our tour, we went into the town of Dulac and met with Jaime in the Dulac Community Center. She spoke on how the BP oil spill has severely impacted their community, where almost 100% of the jobs there are some how dependant on Oil and Fishing. We also learned about how even before the oil spill, that there were very similar problems going on in their community.

Accompanying himself on “the Cajun style diatonic accordeon,” David Pulling, an administrator and English professor at Louisiana State University at Eunice sings a song for us that ends:

Mes amis de tout partout,                                               My friends from everywhere,

Prendez exemple de nous-autres.                                 Take example of us.

La huile ne vaut pas nos vies!                                        Oil is not worth our lives!

On doit se detourner,                                                      We must turn about,
     trouver un autre maniere                                                  find another way

Pour nous librer et sauver nos vies.                                To free ourselves and save our lives.

Each of these was gift that I was able to pass on to my students when my school year began in September 2010. More and more teachers joined the site as well so that students from kindergarten through graduate school engaged in student-sponsored inquiries and interrogations into the BP oil spill and the Gulf recovery in the Fall 2010 semester.

Developing and Insider’s Perspective

My hope is that Voices on the Gulf is helping my students to understand why this crisis matters in their own lives. Perhaps they will see that this spill was not merely a terrible accident that we can look away from now that the well has been capped. With our peers on the Gulf Coast, my students and I can learn from this tragedy even after it leaves the headlines. This disaster can become a case study to help us to see why protecting the environment matters and what needs to change in our culture of neglect, complacency, and environmental indifference in which we all participate.


Another lesson from our work on Youth Voices that we bring to Voices on the Gulf is to have students pose their own questions. On both sites, we help students to create discussion posts around issues that they feel passionately about and that they think are important. Several years ago I learned a simple process from James A. Beane’s Curriculum Integration. I almost always begin a semester by asking my students to write ten questions about “self” and ten questions about the “world.”

From these questions, the students develop themes for inquiry, by looking to see what seems important to themselves and to others. Given this summer’s emergency in the Gulf, it was no surprise to find that students are asking questions that will lead them to study the vital environmental, ethical, economic, and political issues that might not have been on their radar screens before the BP oil spill. And when they publish their thoughts, these posts will be intertwined with the personally rich eyewitness reports from students of all ages from the Gulf.

Because the nation (or at least the media) has moved on to other issues, it’s more vital than ever to have Voices on the Gulf and curriculum projects such as those developed in the summer of 2010 in Edutopia’s Project-Based Learning Camp organized by Suzie Boss.

 A Labor Day (2010) editorial in the Press-Register explained:

Even though BP engineers stopped the flow of oil in mid-July, the effects of the spill will be felt in these parts for a long time. While municipalities continue to monitor and clean their beaches, scientists will be gauging the health of seafood and the ecosystem, and claims czar Kenneth Feinberg will be evaluating and paying damage claims.

On Voices on the Gulf we are not only able to collect and comment both discussion posts created for the site by teachers and students. We can also respond to local radio broadcasts, collections of photographs, local blogs, and newspaper articles that we’re able to feed into the site. A social network like Voices on the Gulf is a great place for my students to respond to the stories from this tragedy that are still being told. They use the site to analyze government, industry, and scientific reports that still being published. And they participate in creating images and writing observations about nature and society.  Voices on the Gulf allows my students to pay attention to our friends on the Gulf to understand what is at stake as the BP oil spill moved from being an emergency to being a chronic crisis.

When the oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, it seemed to make sense to ask, as we did on our Teachers Teaching Teachers, “Why isn’t the BP oil spill being addressed in all areas of the curriculum?” In response to questions about where these issues might fit into mandated, pre-planned curricula, we began to ask instead, “If there’s something in my curriculum that doesn’t help students understand the world we are living in now–after this spill–then why is it there?”

In Gulfport, Mississippi on June 14, 2010, President Barack Obama said the oil spill disaster would shape “how we think about the environment and energy” for years to come. If that was true then, it’s still true now. If this is an “environmental 9/11” as Obama claimed in June, then shouldn’t it be in all of our classrooms from now on?

Of course, the recovery of the Gulf Coast won’t be the only story worth studying. This school year my students will be interested to learn about many other current events as well. What about the floods in Pakistan or the miners in Chile, for two examples? It will be important for my students to follow many different stories, but Voices on the Gulf gives us special access to go deep into this crisis now.

Because the teachers and students on he Gulf Coast are offering their eyewitness reports, poetry, inquiries and interrogations, the students in my classes who use Voices on the Gulf have been able to develop an insiders perspective or empathy. They are developing the tools they need to understand and to learn about any new situation that they choose to study in the future.

Is This the Future of Youth Voices?

School started in August on the Gulf Coast, and classes began in New York City soon after Labor Day.  Early in August, singer and teacher, David Puling wrote to say that that he wasn’t sure how to integrate Voices on the Gulf into his course yet. “The curriculum is pre-set, but I’m determined to
find some way because the opportunity is too rich with potential and authenticity.” Well, he figured it out.

He began by having his Louisiana State University at Eunice students join the site and and post “their own stories of how this catastrophe has affected them and the ones they love.” David plans to have his students “revisit the site throughout the semester, and their culminating research paper later in the fall (the obligatory second semester comp project) will stem from their involvement with this website.”

Both David and I and I have invited any teacher we know to take advantage of this opportunity as well.

About half-way into the fall semester, David Pulling began to reflect on the future of Voices on the Gulf and, by extension, Youth Voices. He wondered how he would be using Voices on the Gulf in the spring semester:

This Fall group started the semester with the oil spill still in the headlines, they’ve made exciting indirect connections with other social and cultural issues, and I can’t wait to see the work some of them will do with their topics once we get to the I-Search project.  I don’t know what to expect for a new cohort coming in January, though. How the site will have evolved by that point is unknown…. Participating in the project is awesome. I certainly hope we’re at a beginning rather than an end, whether Voices on the Gulf one day morphs into Voices on the Great Lakes or Voices from Appalachia or Voices from the Inner City or whatever. This is just such a powerful medium for teachers and learners across grade levels and disciplines and geographical regions to form a diverse community and grapple with meaningful issues. (personal email)


What an exciting vision David has stumbled onto here! When Chris Sloan heard this vision, he said that an environmental teacher in his school took a look at Voices on the Gulf and said that in Utah they need a Voices on the Desert. Why not? What would regional social networks look like with Youth Voices acting as a hub for authentic conversations all over the United States?

It’s just a thought, so far.